Here's a glimpse of what the future will look like.
This week, Scientific American published its annual report on emerging technologies. The list is a compilation of what the publication calls "disruptive solutions" that are "poised to change the world." To qualify, a particular technology must be attracting funding or showing signs of an imminent breakthrough, but must not have reached widespread adoption yet.
Here are a few of the cutting-edge technologies that made the list--and the companies that are already making strides with them.
1. Noninvasive biopsies
Cancer biopsies, which entail removing tissue suspected of containing cancerous cells, can be painful and complicated. Analyzing the results takes time. Sometimes, the tumor can't be reached at all.
Liquid biopsies could be the solution to all those issues. By analyzing circulating-tumor DNA--a genetic material that travels from tumors into the bloodstream--the technique can detect the presence of cancer and help doctors make decisions about treatment. It can potentially go even further than traditional biopsies, identifying mutations and indicating when more aggressive treatment is necessary. Grail, which spun out from life sciences company Illumina earlier this year, currently has $1 billion in funding from investors including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. The startup is working toward developing blood tests that could detect cancer in its earliest stages.
2. Precision farming
Farming doesn't have to be an inexact science. Thanks to artificial intelligence, GPS, and analytics software, farmers can now be more precise in managing their crop yields. This makes agriculture a more efficient operation, which is especially critical in parts of the world where resources or climate aren't conducive to growing. Indoor farming startups including Aerofarms, Green Spirit Farms, and Urban Produce all closely analyze their crops using these types of tools to maximize output and flavor. Blue River Technology and others use computer vision to cut down on wasted fertilizer--sometimes by 90 percent.
3. Sustainable design of communities
Creating sustainable neighborhoods isn't just be good for the environment--it might be good business, allowing companies and residents to reduce their energy costs. Google spinout Sidewalk Labs is scouting locations for a huge feasibility study that would use one neighborhood to showcase what the city of the future might look like, creating infrastructure for self-driving electric cars and sustainable energy sources like solar. Last year, Denver and Detroit were rumored to be front-runners for the project.
4. Deep learning for visual tasks
Artificial intelligence has become shockingly successful at identifying images across a range of applications. Facebook already can recognize many of the people and objects in your photos and allows you to search for images by describing their contents. Google's image recognition software is the basis for its new platform, called PlaNet, which can in some cases predict the locations where photos were taken based on clues in signage, landmarks, and vegetation. Earlier this year, researchers at Stanford revealed that they'd trained A.I. to correctly identify skin cancer with 90 percent accuracy--higher than the dermatologists it went head to head with.
5. Harvesting clean water from air
What if moisture could be pulled from the air, even in arid climates? Scientific American reports that research teams at University of California-Berkeley and M.I.T. are developing systems aimed at accomplishing just that. The scientists customize crystals called metal-organic frameworks to be extra porous and thus able to collect large amounts of water, which are then deposited into a collector.
An Arizona-based startup called Zero Mass Water harvests water using a different method. According to the publication, the company creates a system that uses solar energy to push air through a moisture-absorbing material. A unit with one solar panel, which runs about $3,700, produces between two and five liters of water per day. The company has performed installations in the southwestern U.S. as well as in Jordan, Dubai, and Mexico. It also recently sent panels to Lebanon to provide water to Syrian refugees.